Today, numerous families bury loved ones in graves marked with headstones. Also sometimes referred to as “gravestones”, “grave markers”, or “tombstones”, these memorials provide a way to convey important information concerning the deceased to future generations. This brief guide seeks to supply information about headstones.

The History of Headstones

Today, cemeteries around the world frequently permit the use of headstones to help memorialize graves. While human beings have found ways to commemorate deceased loved ones for thousands of years, the use of modern-style headstones remains a comparatively recent innovation across the vast expanse of time.

The Early Use of Headstones

People in many ancient civilizations erected statues and monuments to honor prominent deceased individuals. However, some sources argue little evidence suggests frequent use of tombstones in the ancient world. The preference for tombstones apparently varied widely from one region to another. For instance, tombstones have marked family grave sites in China for centuries. Today some archaeologists surmise many rulers who constructed elaborate burial chambers to hold treasures for use in the Afterlife, such as the Egyptian Pharaohs and the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di, likely desired to hide the locations of these sites in order to thwart grave robbers.

In some parts of Europe and the Middle East, prehistoric people erected large stone structures known as “dolmen”. These monuments usually consisted of two upright stones supporting a large flat central slab; some authorities believe they originally served as grave markers or burial chambers. The purpose behind these structures has become largely lost to recorded history over the course of thousands of years.

Medieval European Headstones

For centuries, burial sites in Western Europe occurred on land consecrated by religious authorities. Sometimes members of the nobility buried loved ones in stone coffins located in crypts within cathedrals. They often created sculptures of the deceased and marked these graves by name with engraved plaques. Although literacy was not widespread in Europe during the Medieval Period, priests and other educated people read and understood Latin. Today, people visiting Medieval cathedrals in Europe still frequently see these graves marked with Latin inscriptions.

Additionally, some wealthy families in certain parts of Europe constructed marked stone vaults as sites for the burial of family members. This practice likely drew upon the early Jewish and Christian traditions of burial in underground catacombs in some cities (including Rome and Paris). Households occasionally memorialized graves in the catacombs using plaques containing words or symbols, although many of these graves contain no markers at all.

For most Christians during the Medieval Period, the concept of burial outside of consecrated ground would have seemed abhorrent. One of the penalties of excommunication during this historical period involved not obtaining permission to bury the deceased in a Church sanctioned cemetery. Grave markers in cemeteries maintained by the Church often consisted of stone crosses or headstones, although some communities possibly utilized wooden crosses, too. It appears the use of prominent grave markers frequently varied based upon socioeconomic status (the poor could not always afford tombstones). The government in the UK has recently authorized archaeological digs in some formerly Catholic cemeteries serving impoverished plague victims dating from the Middle Ages. If these graves once displayed tombstones or markers, they have disappeared during intervening centuries.

Changing Burial Practices

During the 1600s and 1700s, as the pace of urban development and commercial activity increased in the West, it became common for families in some places to establish private cemetery plots in rural areas. While burials still typically occurred under religious auspices, greater variability in the use of headstones occurred.

For example, in New Orleans, where the hot climate and the high water table created practical difficulties for people burying bodies in graves, some families established elaborate stone mortuary vaults in cemeteries. Today, early New Orleans vault “cities” have drawn the attention of the tourism industry. Stones marked with family surnames sometimes serve as headstones or plaques outside these structures.

Residents in some locations in the Eastern United States still visit cemeteries containing grave sites containing centuries-old headstones. The practice of memorializing the dead with stone markers was well established by the 1700s. By taking the time to visit these early graves, many researchers help document family histories. The engravings on many of these older tombstones have eroded over the course of centuries, making some of these memorials difficult to read today.

Victorian Era Tombstones

During the 1800s, the use of a variety of graveside sculptures and tombstones gained popularity in Europe and some parts of North America. These markers often displayed ornate decorative carvings. Many include statuary displaying images of angels, cherubs, or religious symbols. Some Victorian headstones containing surnames mark plots used for entire families or for married couples. Still, others commemorate individual lives.

Possibly widespread improvements in stone carving during this period account for the high artistic quality of some Victorian tombstones. The advent of industrialization now permitted more artisans to use strong metal tools and caustic chemicals to engrave information deeply into rock. While earlier headstones frequently contained limited data, by the Victorian period many families attached full names and dates of births and deaths to headstones. Some of these markers even include poetry or final last words of wisdom. Victorian Era tombstones also tend to utilize Latin inscriptions less frequently than headstones dating from earlier centuries.

Headstones During the Modern Era

Today, advances in the art of stone carving and engraving enable headstones to present a wealth of personalized information. Most people include a family surname or full names on these memorials. Tombstones mark grave sites for families, couples, or individuals. Additionally, headstones often list the dates of individual births and deaths. As in the Victorian Era, some carry tributes from family members, e.g. “beloved son” or “cherished mother”.

Tombstones during the modern era sometimes include engraved photos of the deceased. Depending upon cemetery guidelines, headstones may provide other tributes also, such as digital screens or enclosed compartments containing digital photos or musical CD tributes. Innovations in information technology now permit these memorials to display a wealth of information about a deceased person’s life and personality. Grieving people have an opportunity in many cases to individualize and customize headstones to share memories about their loved ones.

Purchasing a Headstone Today

Families enjoy the opportunity to select headstones crafted from a wide variety of materials, including slate, sandstone, concrete, marble, limestone, and granite. These stones occur in an array of different available colors. A tombstone may display a plaque, and/or supply engravings. These memorials appear in a multitude of shapes and dimensions also, including arched or square slabs, crosses, Stars of David, obelisks, pyramids, and other styles. While many headstones contain finely polished surfaces, others do not. Considerable diversity occurs in the appearance of these monuments.

Most experts recommend consulting cemetery guidelines before ordering a headstone. While some cemeteries place no restrictions upon the use of these customized memorials, others adhere to specific regulations. For example, rules may require the use of certain materials or set forth height or size limitations.

The cost of tombstones also varies widely. The International Southern Cemetery Gravestones Association reports most customers to obtain flat grave markers for under $1,000. However, an upright tombstone costs more, with most ranging in price from $1,500 to $2,000. Very elaborate or large headstones may command prices upwards of $10,000 in some locations. Many new digital tombstones average just over $3,000.

The degree of customization usually impacts the price. Headstones with extensive engraving and artistic renderings tend to cost more than simple tombstones bearing limited inscriptions. They require more time for a stone mason to complete.

Today, couples sometimes secure adjoining burial plots and use a single headstone to mark both graves. Cemetery guidelines vary concerning the availability of this option. Although joint headstones spare the family the expense of purchasing two individual headstones, these memorials reportedly usually cost more than a single tombstone.

The cost of the headstone itself typically does not include installation expenses. These fees vary widely, based upon individual providers. Many cemeteries routinely charge an installation fee for this service, although private companies also perform marker and headstone installations. Some sources claim modern cemeteries even permit DIY installations by survivors (although this practice depends upon cemetery regulations and applicable local safety codes).

Honoring Military Veterans With Headstones

Families of deceased eligible U.S. veterans lying in unmarked graves can ask the United States Department of Veterans Affairs to supply a marker or headstone without charge. Eligible veterans who passed away after November 1, 1990, may qualify for this memorial too, even if the grave already carries a headstone or marker. The Department of Veterans Affairs furnishes detailed information about its headstone and marker programs on its website. Specific rules govern the availability of these memorials for veterans, dependents, and spouses.

Selecting a Headstone

Individuals who pre-plan a funeral, memorial, or cremation arrangements frequently make provisions for the selection of their own headstones or grave markers. In other situations, loved ones may consult about this issue with an ailing person to determine individual preferences. In still other cases, close family members erect headstones after the passing of a deceased person.

While many families make funeral arrangements quickly following a death, the selection of a headstone sometimes occurs weeks, months, or even years later. A variety of considerations enter into this decision. These factors may include the preferences of the deceased, the location of the grave, the cemetery regulations, the cost, and the sentiments of the grieving.

Installing a Headstone

The installation of a headstone usually requires the skills of experienced personnel. Why? The weight of some tombstones today necessitates very careful handling to avoid damaging the monument or injuring people within the vicinity. In crowded cemeteries, workers must also exercise care to avoid harming existing headstones during the installation process.

The material used in a headstone determines its total weight. Marble and limestone typically weigh between 150 and 179 lbs per square foot. Granite weighs slightly more (approximately 159 to 180 lbs per square foot). By carefully measuring the dimensions and thickness of a headstone, installers calculate the total approximate weight based upon the type of rock and the total area. They add 10% to 20% to the final total to account for damp conditions at the time of installation.

The distance from the headstone supplier to a cemetery impacts total transportation costs. Due to the weights involved, most modern cemeteries require headstone installers to utilize rebar and cement in order to help secure a tombstone firmly in place. Workers dig a cavity for the base of the stone, then construct a level cement and metal platform to contain the headstone itself. The process typically requires a minimum of four days to complete (allowing for longer time frames permits the cement base to cure more fully). After completing the base, the installers position the tombstone and further support it with additional soil placed around the periphery. 

Maintaining a Headstone

The steps involved in maintaining a headstone in good condition depend to a great extent upon its constituents. New styles of tombstones which include high tech digital screens require special care to preserve the display from weather-related damage. Yet even traditional stone monuments often benefit from occasional cleaning and restoration.

The maintenance of headstones often falls within the responsibility of the cemetery management association. Experts recommend against power washing tombstones as a method of cleaning; the force of the pressurized water will eventually erode the stone and obscure engravings. Stones which include brass or other metal plates may benefit from occasional polishing, however. Additionally, some people clean tombstones periodically using formulations recommended for specific types of constituent materials.

If you have any questions about cleaning a headstone, it usually proves helpful to discuss this concern with the monument maker prior to making a purchasing decision. The stone engraver can recommend the best protocols for maintaining an individual tombstone. Many cemeteries will include these recommendations in their cleaning protocols.

A Loving Tribute

Headstones help bring solace to grieving people by enabling them to memorialize the lives of departed loved ones. These monuments sometimes endure for hundreds of years. They help demonstrate undying love and respect.